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Sunday, April 6, 2014

Albert Guillaume

The Latecomers, 1914, Albert Guillaume.
The setting is cultural, the humor involves human nature.  Everyone hates latecomers.

Although we don't often think about it, humor is one of the most persistent traits in art. Perhaps the reason we don't often think about it has to do with the fact that humor does not translate well from one language or one culture to another. Unlike music, humor is not a universal language. A funny cartoon out of The New Yorker might leave a Frenchman scratching his head muttering "Je ne comprends pas" (I don't get it). I must say, I had much the same feeling in scanning through the works of the French cartoonist/caricaturist/painter/illustrator Albert Guillaume. Of course, if my reading of French was better (or that of Google) I might have been more amused. The "get it" factor seems to revolve around two axes. Cultural humor and human nature. In general Cultural humor does not translate well. However, that humor which revolves around human nature does, in fact, like music, it seem to be universal.

Albert Guillaume posing as a painter.
Young Woman and her Dog in her Boudoir,
(about to set the place on fire), Albert Guillaume
At his best, Albert Guillaume might be considered something of a French Norman Rockwell. His The Latecomers (top) from 1914, except for the horizontal format, could easily be mistaken for an N.R. At other times, he might be considered by some as little more than a smut peddler. Ever hear of "naughty" French postcards? Guillaume probably didn't invent them but his personal archives would seem to be "peppered" with them. As the Young Lady and her Dog (left) would suggest, none of his postcards, by today's standards, would likely be considered obscene. Risqué, perhaps, decadent, amusing, maybe even "cute" or "arty." However, a hundred years ago...well, times have changed.

"Naughty" French postcard--Amour Profound (deep love), Albert Guillaume.
The color sketch came first, which was then used as the basis for a background
in photographing the live models. (Notice the shark is about to nip the diver's air line.)
1929, Albert Guillaume
--whatever the client demanded.

Albert Guillaume was born in 1873 in Paris. His father and older brother both were architects, but Albert excelled at caricature. Though he seems to have picked up some drawing and painting skills studying under Gerome at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, about the only lasting influence he got from his painting master seems to have been Gerome's knack for marketing himself and his work in prints. In fact, Guillaume came to make Gerome look like a rank amateur in this regard. He came to be called the "father of the modern poster" (Guillaume would have wanted that in all upper case type." I can't argue with that. Not since Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, a generation before, had any man so dominated this peculiarly French art form. From advertisements for virtually anything (he wasn't "above" any type product or activity from chocolates to burlesque) to women's magazine covers (right), Guillaume was every bit the modern commercial artist (or graphic designer as we call them today).

The Provoked Wife, Albert Guillaume--universal humor.
Guillaume worked at a time when magazine
ads were replacing wall posters.

Be that as it may, Guillaume is at his best when he's funny (or trying to be). Having come of age during the height of Impressionism, there is a looseness to Guillaume's painting style that, while eschewing Impressionist color theory, certainly embraces their handling of the paint on canvas. However, Guillaume's greatest source of revenue seems not to have been painting, but in the area of advertising as the Peugeot ad (left) would indicate, and in publishing postcards. Not all of Guillaume's postcards were of the "naughty" variety. Many were also advertisements and most were probably funnier then than now but even after a hundred years, human nature hasn't changed much. Men are still often pompous asses. Women take hours to get "dressed." They still fret over their weight. They still have difficulty making up their minds. And they still...okay, I'll admit it, much of Guillaume's humor was of what we'd term today the "sexist" variety. Men demanded respect. Women demanded patience.

I'm Almost Ready, Albert Guillaume
The first half of the 20th century when Guillaume did most of his work, was not an easy time for a French artist. Wars, economic troubles, social unrest, all pressed hard on the European business community which Guillaume relied upon to pay the bills. Moreover, art itself also was changing. Modern Art went one direction, commercial art went another and neither have been comfortable in the other's presence since that time. Guillaume's The Spiel (below) from 1914, presents the humorous encounter between "old money" and "new art." Yet it is the pride and pretentions of the French culture clashing with human nature (bottom) where Guillaume finds his most lasting marker in art. Albert Guillaume died in 1942 hiding out from the Nazis in an obscure rural village at the height of the German occupation. The Nazis didn't think he was all that funny.

The Spiel, 1914, Albert Guillaume
Having probably eaten too much of the advertiser's product.
A Pupil of Bonnat, Albert Guillaume. Bonnat was both a French artist
(Leon Bonnat, 1833-1922) and a brand of French chocolates. Guillaume's
client apparently didn't mind the implication that chocolate would lead to obesity.

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